Jean had been engaged for a couple of days in some fields which Hourdequin owned near Rognes, and where he had set up a steam threshing-machine, hired from a Châteaudun engine-builder, who sent it about from Bonneval to Cloyes. With his cart and his two horses, the young man brought the sheaves from the surrounding ricks, and then took the grain to the farm; while the machine, puffing away from morning till night, scattered golden dust in the sunlight, and filled the country-side with a terrific, incessant snorting.
Jean was not well, and was ransacking his brains as to how he might best recover possession of Françoise. A month had already gone by since he had clasped her, on that very spot, among the wheat which they were now threshing; and since then she had always escaped from him, apprehensively. He began to despair of renewing the intercourse; and yet his desire was increasing, becoming an all-absorbing, maddening passion. As he drove his horses, he wondered why he should not go to the Buteaus and roundly ask for Françoise's hand. There had been no open definitive rupture between them. He still bade them good-day as he passed, and, if he did not call on them, it was solely because he was influenced by the disquietude of guilt. As soon as this idea of marriage occurred to him, as the only means of getting the girl back, he persuaded himself that it was the path of duty, and that he should be acting dishonourably if he did not marry her. The next morning, however, when he returned to the machine, he was seized with fear; and he would never have dared to risk the step had he not seen Buteau and Françoise set off together for the fields. He then bethought himself that Lise had always been favourable to him, and that, with her, he would possess more confidence. So he slipped away for a few moments, leaving his horses in charge of a fellow-servant.
"Why, Jean!" cried Lise, sturdily up and about again after her confinement; "no one ever sees you now. What's up?"
He made some excuses, and then, with the brusqueness of shy people, he hurriedly broached the subject, in such an awkward way, however, that at first it was open for her to think that he was making her a declaration. For he reminded her that he had loved her, and that he would willingly have taken her to wife. However, he at once added:
"And that's why I'd all the same marry Françoise if she were given me."
Lise stared at him in such astonishment that he began to stammer:
"Oh, I'm well aware that it can't be settled straight off. I only wanted to talk to you about it!"
"Well, it takes me by surprise," she replied at length, "because I hardly expected such a thing, on account of your ages. First of all, we must know what Françoise thinks."
He had come formally resolved to tell the whole tale, thus hoping to make the marriage inevitable. But at the last moment a scruple restrained him. If Françoise had not confessed to her sister, if no one knew anything about it, had he the right to speak? He was discouraged, and felt ridiculous, on account of his thirty-three years of age.
"Most certainly," he muttered, "she should be consulted. Nobody would force her."
Lise, however, having once got over her astonishment, looked at him as genially as ever. Evidently the idea did not displease her. She was even quite gracious.
"It shall be as she chooses, Jean. I'm not like Buteau, who thinks her too young. She's getting on for eighteen, and she has the build for two men, let alone one. And, besides, love is all very well between sister and sister, of course; but now that she's a woman, I'd rather have a servant under orders in her place. If she says yes, take her! You're a good sort, and the old cocks are often the best."
She had been unable to restrain these words of complaint anent the gradual estrangement which was irresistibly increasing between herself and her younger sister: that hostility, aggravated by little daily jars, a secret leaven of jealousy and hatred which had been doing its stealthy work ever since a man had come into the house with his will and his lust.
Jean, in his delight, kissed Lise warmly on both cheeks.
"It happens that we're just christening the baby," she added, "and we shall have the family to dinner this evening. I invite you, and you shall make your proposal to old Fouan, who's the guardian, that is if Françoise will have you."
"Agreed!" cried he. "I'll see you to-night!"
He rapidly strode back to his horses, and drove them all day long, making his whip resound with clacks which rang out like gun-shots on the morning of a fête.
The Buteaus were, indeed, having their child baptised after a deal of delay. First of all, Lise had insisted on waiting till she was quite strong and well again, wishing to join in the feast. Next—on ambitious thoughts intent—she had obstinately resolved to have Monsieur and Madame Charles for godfather and godmother, and they having condescendingly consented, it had been necessary to wait for Madame Charles, who had just started for Chartres to lend a helping hand in her daughter's establishment, for as it was now the time of the September fair, the house in the Rue aux Juifs was always full. However, as Lise had told Jean, the christening was to be simply a family gathering, with Fouan, La Grande, the Delhommes, and the godparents.
At the last moment there had been serious difficulties with the Abbé Godard, who was now incessantly at loggerheads with Rognes. So long as he had cherished the hope that the Municipal Council would indulge in the luxury of a priest of its own, he had been content to bear his troubles patiently: such as the four miles or so which he had to walk for each mass, and the vexatious demands which this irreligious village made upon him. But he could now no longer deceive himself with false hopes. Every year the council regularly refused to repair the parsonage. Hourdequin, the mayor, declared that the expenses were already too heavy; and Macqueron, the assessor, alone paid court to the priesthood, in furtherance of certain hidden ambitious designs. So the Abbé Godard, no longer having any reason to keep on good terms with Rognes, became severe in his treatment of the village, and only vouchsafed it the strictest minimum of worship. He did not treat the inhabitants to any extra prayers, or any display of tapers and incense for amusement's sake. He was always quarrelling with the women of the village. In June there had been quite a pitched battle on the subject of the first communion. Five children—two little girls and three boys—had been attending his catechism class on Sundays after mass, and to avoid having to return to confess them, he insisted on their coming to him at Bazoches-le-Doyen. Thereupon a first sedition arose among the women. A pretty thing, indeed! Three-quarters of a league to go there, and the same distance back! Who was to know what might happen, with boys and girls running about together? Next, there was a terrible storm when he refused point-blank to celebrate the full ceremony at Rognes: high mass, with singing, and so forth. He intended to hold this celebration in his own parish, whither the five children were free to repair, if they wished to do so. For a whole fortnight the women raved with fury round the fountain. What! He christened them, married them, and buried them in their own village, and now he wouldn't give them a decent communion! He was obstinate, however, and merely officiated at low mass, dismissing the five communicants without even a blossom or an oremus by way of consolation. When the women, vexed even to tears at seeing such a paltry ceremony, entreated him to have vespers sung in the afternoon, he flew into a passion! Nothing of the kind! He gave them their due. They would have had high mass, vespers, and everything else at Bazoches if their obstinacy had not made them rebel even against the blessed God Himself! After this quarrel a rupture seemed imminent between the Abbé Godard and Rognes, and the least jar would certainly bring about a catastrophe.
When Lise went to see the priest about the christening of her baby, he talked of fixing it for the Sunday, after mass. But she begged of him to return on the Tuesday at two o'clock, for the godmother would not return from Chartres till the morning of that day; and he eventually consented, recommending the party to be punctual, for he was determined, he cried, that he would not wait a second.
On the Tuesday, at two o'clock precisely, the Abbé Godard reached the church, panting from his journey, and damp owing to a sudden shower. No one had yet arrived. There was only Hilarion, who, at the entrance of the nave, was engaged in clearing up a corner of the baptistery, encumbered with fragments of old flag-stones, which had always been seen there. Since the death of his sister, the cripple had lived on public charity, and it had occurred to the priest, who used to slip odd francs into the poor fellow's hand from time to time, to employ him on this work of clearance, which had been resolved upon scores of times but always deferred. For a few moments he interested himself in watching Hilarion's task. Then he was taken with a first fit of anger.
"Good gracious! are they making a fool of me? It's already ten minutes past two," he exclaimed.
Then, as he looked at the Buteaus' silent, sleepy-looking house across the square, he noticed the rural constable waiting under the porch, and smoking his pipe.
"Ring the bell, Bécu!" he cried; "that'll bring the sluggards along."
So Bécu, who was very drunk, as usual, hung on to the bell-rope, while the priest went to put on his surplice. He had drawn up the entry in the register on the previous Sunday, and he intended to perform the ceremony by himself, without the help of the choir-children, who brought him to the verge of distraction. When all was ready, he again became impatient. Ten minutes more had elapsed, and the bell still rang out, with exasperating persistence, amid the deep silence of the deserted village.
"What on earth are they about? They ought to have some one at their backs with a stick!" said the priest.
At last he saw La Grande come forth from the Buteaus' house, walking along in her spiteful, old-queen-like way, dry and upright, like a thistle, despite her eighty-five years.
A great worry was distracting the family. All the guests were there, excepting the godmother, who had been vainly awaited since the morning. Monsieur Charles, quite dumbfounded, declared over and over again that it was most surprising, that he had received a letter only the night before, and that Madame Charles, who was detained perhaps at Cloyes, would certainly arrive in a minute or two. Lise, anxious, and knowing that the priest was not over-fond of waiting, finally took it into her head to despatch La Grande to him, so as to keep him patient.
"What's the meaning of this?" he asked her, from a distance. "Are we going to begin to-day or to-morrow? Perhaps you think that God Almighty is at your beck and call?"
"In a moment, your reverence; in a moment," replied the old woman, with her impassive calmness.
Hilarion was just then bringing out the last fragments of the flag-stones, and he went by carrying an immense block against his stomach. He swayed from side to side on his crooked shanks, but he did not bend, being as firmly set as a rock, with muscles strong enough to have carried an ox. His hare-lip was dribbling, but not a drop of sweat moistened his hardened skin.
The Abbé Godard, provoked by La Grande's equanimity, fell upon her at once.
"Look here, La Grande," said he, "now that I've got hold of you, is it charitable of you, who are so well off, to let your only grandson beg his bread along the roads?"
"The mother disobeyed me; the child is nothing to me," she answered harshly.
"Well, I've given you fair warning, and I tell you again that if you're so hard-hearted as that you'll go to Hell. He would have starved to death the other day but for what I gave him, and now I'm obliged to invent a job for him."
On hearing the word "Hell" La Grande slightly smiled. As she herself said, she knew too much about it: the poor folks' Hell was on this earth. The sight of Hilarion carrying paving-stones set her thinking, however, far more than the priest's threats did. She was surprised; she would never have imagined that he was so strong, with his jacket-sleeve shanks.
"If it's work he wants," she replied at last, "I daresay he can be found some."
"His proper place is with you. Take him, La Grande," said the priest.
"We'll see. Let him come to-morrow."
Hilarion, who had understood, began to tremble to such a degree that he all but crushed his feet as he dropped his last slab. As he went off he cast a furtive glance on his grandmother, like a whipped, terrified, submissive animal.
Another half-hour went by. Bécu, tired of ringing, was smoking his pipe once more in the sunshine. La Grande remained there, silent and imperturbable, as if her mere presence sufficed as a mark of respect to the priest; while the latter, whose exasperation was on the increase, kept running every instant to the church door to cast a fiery look across the empty square towards the Buteaus' house.
"Ring, Bécu, why don't you!" he shouted all at once. "If they're not here in three minutes' time, I'm off!"
Then as the bell pealed out madly once more, and set the aged ravens a-fluttering and a-cawing, the Buteaus and their party were seen to leave the house one by one and cross the square. Lise was in consternation; the godmother had still not arrived, and so they settled to stroll quietly over to the church, in hopes that perhaps that would bring her a little quicker. But they were only a hundred yards away, and the Abbé Godard at once began to hurry them up.
"I say, you know, are you trying to make a fool of me?" he called. "I consult your convenience, and in return I'm kept waiting an hour! Make haste! Make haste!"
Then he pushed them all towards the baptistery: the mother carrying her newly-born child, the father, grandfather Fouan, uncle Delhomme, aunt Fanny, and even Monsieur Charles, who, in his black frock-coat, looked very dignified as a godparent.
"Your reverence," said Buteau, with an exaggerated air of humility, in which a sniggering slyness lurked, "if you would only be so good as to wait a tiny bit longer——"
"Wait! What for?"
"Why, for the godmother, your reverence!"
The Abbé Godard became so red that apoplexy seemed imminent. Half suffocating, he stuttered out:
"Get somebody else!"
They all looked at each other. Delhomme and Fanny shook their heads; and Fouan declared:
"Impossible. It would be bad breeding."
"A thousand pardons, your reverence," said Monsieur Charles, who thought that it devolved upon him as a person of good breeding to explain matters; "it's partly our fault, but not quite. My wife had expressly written me that she would be back this morning. She's at Chartres."
The Abbé Godard started, and, losing all control, breaking all bounds, he shouted:
"At Chartres! At Chartres, indeed! I regret for your sake that you have a finger in this pie, Monsieur Charles. But the thing sha'n't go on. No, no! I won't put up with it any longer!"
Then he burst forth:
"No one here cares what outrage he offers God in my person; I get a fresh buffet every time I come to Rognes. I've threatened long enough, and now I'll do it. I leave to-day, and I will never return. Tell your mayor that, and find a priest and pay him, if you want one. I'll speak to the bishop, and tell him who you are; I'm sure he will approve of my course. We'll soon see who'll get the worst of it. You shall live priestless, like brute beasts."
They were all staring at him curiously, with the inward indifference of practical folk who no longer feared the God of wrath and chastisement. What was the use of quaking and prostrating themselves, and purchasing forgiveness, when the very idea of the devil now made them smile, and when they had ceased to believe that the wind, the hail, and the thunder were controlled by an avenging Master? It was certainly waste of time. It was better for them to keep their respect for the Government gendarmes, who held the reins of power.
Despite their assumed air of deferential gravity, the Abbé Godard saw that Buteau was sniggering, that La Grande was disdainful, and that even Delhomme and Fouan were perfectly unmoved; and this loss of influence completed the rupture.
"I'm perfectly aware that your cows have more religion than you have," said he. "Well, good-bye! Dip your barbarian child into the pond, and christen it like that!"
Then he ran away and tore off his surplice, crossed the church again, and bolted in such a whirl of wrath that the christening party, thus left in the lurch, could not even get in a word, but stood open-mouthed and open-eyed.
The worst of it was that at that very moment, as the Abbé Godard was going down Macqueron's new street, they saw a covered cart coming up the high-road—a cart containing Madame Charles and Elodie. The former explained that she had stopped at Châteaudun to kiss the child, who had been granted a two days' holiday. She seemed extremely sorry for the delay, and declared that she had not even gone on to Roseblanche with her trunk.
"Some one must run after the priest," said Lise; "it's only dogs that are left unchristened."
Buteau ran off, and was heard trotting down Macqueron's street. But the Abbé Godard had got a good start; and Buteau crossed the bridge and mounted the slope, only catching sight of the priest when he reached the crest of it, just where the road turned.
"Your reverence, your reverence!"
At last the priest turned round and waited.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The godmother's there. Christening isn't a thing to refuse one."
For an instant the Abbé stood motionless. Then he came back down the hill behind the peasant, at the same furious pace; and thus they re-entered the church without exchanging another word. The ceremony was hurried through. The priest mangled the godparents' Credo, anointed the child, applied the salt, and poured out the water, all with the same violence. He had soon got to the signing of the register.
"Your reverence," now said Madame Charles, "I've a box of sweetmeats for you, but it's in my trunk."
He thanked her in dumb-show and went off, after turning to them all once more and repeating:
The Buteaus and their party, breathless at having been carried along at such a pace, watched him as he disappeared at the corner of the square, with his black cassock flying behind him. All the villagers were in the fields; there were merely a few urchins about, on the chance of obtaining some plaster-of-Paris sweetmeats. Amid the deep silence one only heard the distant snorting of the steam thrasher, which never rested.
On re-entering the Buteaus' house, at the door of which the cart with the trunk was waiting, they all agreed to have a little something to drink, and then to separate until dinner in the evening. It was now only four o'clock, so what would they have done in each other's company till seven? Then, when the glasses and the two quarts of wine were set out on the kitchen table, Madame Charles absolutely insisted on having her trunk got down, so as to make her presents there and then. Opening the trunk, she first took out the baby's dress and cap—which came somewhat behind time—and next six boxes of sweetmeats, which she gave to the mother.
"Do these come from mamma's confectionery shop?" asked Elodie, who was looking at them.
For a second Madame Charles felt embarrassed. Then she calmly replied:
"No, my darling; your mother does not keep this kind."
And, turning towards Lise, she added: "I thought of you, too, in the matter of linen. There is nothing so useful in a house as old linen; so I asked my daughter for some, and ransacked all her drawers."
Hearing linen mentioned, everybody had drawn near—La Grande, the Delhommes, and Fouan himself. Gathering in a ring round the trunk, they watched the old lady unpack a whole lot of rags, all clean and white, and exhaling, despite the washing, a persistent odour of musk. First came some fine linen sheets, in tatters; then a quantity of chemises, all slit down, with the lace palpably torn off.
Madame Charles unfolded the things, shook them out, and explained:
"The sheets are not new. They've been quite five years in use; and in time, what with friction and so on, they wear out. You see that they've all a large hole in the middle, but the edges are still good, and a host of things may be cut out of them."
They all stuck their noses into the sheets, and felt them, with approving nods, particularly the women—La Grande and Fanny, whose pinched-up lips were expressive of suppressed envy. Buteau was indulging in silent laughter, tickled by certain jocular ideas which he kept to himself, for propriety's sake; while Fouan and Delhomme testified by their extreme gravity to the respect they felt for linen, which was the only wealth, worth calling so, next to land.
"As for the chemises," resumed Madame Charles, unfolding them in their turn, "see for yourselves. They're not worn at all. Lots of slits in them, no doubt! They're torn to ruination! And as they can't always be sewn up again, because that would make thick seams, and look a little paltry, why, they're thrown away for old linen. But they'll come in handy for you, Lise—"
"Why, I'll wear them," cried the peasant woman. "It makes no odds to me to wear a mended chemise."
"As for me," declared Buteau, with a sly wink, "I shall be glad enough if you'll make me some handkerchiefs out of them."
This set them laughing undisguisedly. Little Elodie, who had not taken her eyes off a single sheet or chemise, now cried out:
"Oh, what a funny smell! How strong! Was all that linen mamma's?"
Madame Charles did not hesitate a moment.
"Why, certainly, darling. That is, it's the linen of her shop-girls. A lot of girls are wanted in business, I can tell you!"
As soon as Lise had put the whole lot away in her wardrobe, with Françoise's help, they clinked glasses and drank the health of the baby, whom the godmother had christened Laure, after herself. Then they tarried for a moment, lost in conversation; and Monsieur Charles, sitting on the trunk, was heard questioning Madame Charles, without waiting to get her alone, so great, indeed, was his impatience to hear how things were going on over yonder. It was still a passion with him; his head was always running upon the house so energetically established in days gone by, and so deeply regretted since! The news was not good. True enough, their daughter Estelle had a hand and a head; but their son-in-law Vaucogne, that milksop Achilles, did not give her proper support. He spent the whole day smoking his pipe, and let everything go to rack and ruin. The curtains of No. 3 were stained, the mirror in the small red drawing-room was cracked, the water-jugs and basins were chipped all over the house; and he never so much as raised a finger. And a man's arm was so necessary to ensure due respect for one's goods and chattels! At every fresh piece of damage thus brought under his notice, Monsieur Charles fetched a sigh, and became paler. One last grievance, communicated in a whisper, finished him off.
"Lastly, he himself goes upstairs with that stout woman of No. 5——"
"What's that you say?"
"Oh, I'm sure of it; I've seen them."
Monsieur Charles, who was quivering, clenched his fists in a burst of exasperated indignation.
"The wretch! Disgracing himself in that way! That beats everything!"
With a gesture, Madame Charles silenced him, for Elodie was coming back from the yard, where she had been to see the hens. Another quart bottle was drained, and the trunk was again placed in the cart, which Monsieur and Madame Charles followed on foot as far as their house. All the others also went off to give a glance indoors while awaiting the feast.
As soon as Buteau was alone, feeling dissatisfied with this waste of an afternoon, he took off his jacket and set to work threshing in the paved corner of the yard; he wanted a sack of corn for the morrow. However, he soon got tired of threshing alone. To warm him to his work he needed the cadence of two flails, keeping time together. So he called to Françoise, who frequently helped him in this work, as her loins were strong, and her arms as hard-set as a young man's. In spite of the slowness and the fatigue of this primitive method of threshing, Buteau had always refused to buy a machine, saying, like all petty landowners, that he preferred to thresh at a time just the quantity he needed.
"Hallo, Françoise! Are you coming?" he called.
Lise, who was leaning over some veal stewing with carrots, after commissioning her sister to look after a loin of roast-pork, wanted to prevent the girl obeying. But Buteau, who was not in the best of temper, threatened them both with a hiding.
"You cursed females! I'll smack your saucepans across your heads for you! One may well sweat for one's bread when you'd go and fry the whole house, to gobble it down with other people!"
Françoise, who had already slipped on a working dress for fear of getting her best clothes stained, was obliged to follow him. She took a flail with handle and flap of cornel wood, secured together with leather buckles. It was her own, polished by friction, and closely bound with string to prevent its slipping. Swinging it round over her head with both hands she brought it down on the wheat, striking the latter smartly with the whole length of the flap. She went on without stopping, raising the flail very high, turning it as upon a hinge, and then banging it down again with the mechanical, rhythmical movement of a blacksmith; while Buteau, opposite her, swung his flail in alternation. They soon became hot. The rhythm was accelerated, and nothing could now be seen but the flying flaps, rebounding every time and whirling behind their necks like birds tied by the feet.
After ten minutes or so, Buteau gave a slight cry. The flails stopped, and he turned the sheaf round, whereupon the flails started again. At the end of another ten minutes he ordered a new pause, and laid the sheaf open. It had to pass thus six times under the flaps before the grain was fully separated from the ears, and the straw could be tied up. Sheaf succeeded sheaf, and for two hours the regular noise of the flails pervaded the house, though above it, in the distance, there arose the prolonged snorting of the steam-thresher.
Françoise's cheeks were now flushed and her wrists swollen, and from all her glowing skin there emanated a kind of flame that quivered visibly in the air. Her open lips were panting. Bits of straw had become entangled in the loose locks of her hair. At every stroke, as she raised the flail, her right knee stretched her petticoat, her hip and bosom expanded, straining her dress, while the contour of her well-set frame showed roughly through the fabric. A button flew off her bodice, and Buteau saw her white skin beneath the sun-burnt line of her neck—an eminence of flesh that kept rising with the swing of her arms in the powerful play of the shoulder-muscles. This seemed to excite him still more; and the flails still fell, while the grain leapt and fell like hail under the panting strokes of the coupled threshers.
At a quarter to seven, at close of day, Fouan and the Delhommes presented themselves.
"We must finish this," shouted Buteau to them, without stopping. "Keep it up, Françoise!"
She stuck to it, striking still harder in the enthusiasm prompted by the labour and noise. And thus it was that Jean found them when he in his turn arrived. He felt a spasm of jealousy, and looked at them as if he had surprised them together. Busy with this warm work, each striking true in turn, both perspiring, so heated and so disarranged, they seemed to be engaged in some other more private business than that of threshing wheat. Perhaps Françoise, who was going at it so zealously, had the same idea, for she suddenly stopped short in embarrassment. Then Buteau, turning round, remained motionless for an instant, with surprise and wrath.
"What do you want here?" he cried.
Lise was just then coming out to meet Fouan and the Delhommes. She drew near in their company, and cried in her sprightly way:
"Ah, yes! I forgot to tell you. I saw Jean this morning and asked him to come in to-night."
Her husband's face was so terribly inflamed that she added, by way of apology:
"I've a notion, Fouan, that he has a request to make of you."
"What about?" said the old man. Jean flushed and stammered, feeling very vexed that the matter should be broached so abruptly and publicly. However, Buteau violently cut him short, the smiling look which his wife cast upon Françoise having sufficed to enlighten him.
"Do you come here to make a laughing-stock of us? She's not for the likes of you, you ugly bird!"
This brutal reception gave Jean back his courage. He turned his back and addressed the old man.
"This is the matter, Fouan. It's a very simple thing. As you are Françoise's guardian, I ought to apply to you for her, oughtn't I? Well, if she will have me, I'll have her. I ask her in marriage."
Françoise, who was still holding her flail, dropped it in amazement. She ought to have expected this; but she had not imagined that Jean would venture to propose for her in such a fashion all at once. Why had he not spoken to her about it first? It flurried her; she could not have told whether she was trembling with hope or fear. Vibrating from her recent toil, her bosom heaving under her unfastened bodice, she remained there between the two men, glowing with such a rush of blood that they felt the heat radiate even to where they stood.
Buteau did not allow Fouan time to answer. He went on in growing fury:
"What? You dare ask that. An old man of thirty-three marry a child of eighteen. Merely fifteen years difference! Isn't it monstrous? Fancy giving young chickens to a fellow with a dirty hide like yours!"
Jean was beginning to lose his temper.
"What's it got to do with you," he replied, "if she likes me and I like her?"
And he turned towards Françoise for her to pronounce. But she stood there startled and rigid, without seeming to understand. She could not say no, but she did not say yes. Buteau, moreover, was glaring at her so murderously as to make the yes stick in her throat. If she married, he would lose her and the land as well. The sudden thought of this result put a finishing touch to his wrath.
"Come, papa; come, Delhomme. Doesn't it revolt you; this child to that old brute, who doesn't even belong to our part of the country, and who comes from God knows where, after traipsing about here, there, and everywhere? A carpenter who failed in his calling and turned peasant, because he had some disgraceful affair to keep secret, of course."
All his hatred of the town artisan burst forth.
"And what then? If I like her and she likes me!" repeated Jean, restraining himself, and resolving, out of courtesy, to let her be the first to relate their story. "Come, Françoise, say something."
"Why, that's true!" cried Lise, carried away by the desire to see her sister married, and thus get rid of her: "what have you to do with it, Buteau, if they agree? She doesn't need your consent, and it's very good of her not to send you about your business. You're getting a perfect nuisance!"
Buteau clearly realised that the matter would be arranged, if the girl were to speak. He especially dreaded that the marriage would be considered reasonable if the past connection were made public. Just then La Grande came into the yard, followed by Monsieur and Madame Charles, who were returning with Elodie. Buteau beckoned them to approach without yet knowing what he would say. Then an idea struck him, and with his face swollen and shaking his fist at his wife and sister-in-law, he yelled out:
"You cursed cows! Yes, cows, trolls, both of you! If you want to know the truth, I sleep with the pair of them! and that's why they think they can make a fool of me! With the pair of them, I tell you! Strumpets that they are!"
These words came in a volley full in the faces of Monsieur and Madame Charles, who both stood there open-mouthed. Madame Charles made a rush as if to shield the listening Elodie. Then, pushing her towards the kitchen garden, she cried in a very loud voice:
"Come and see the salads, come and see the cabbages! Oh, such fine cabbages!"
Buteau invented fresh details as he went on, relating that when one had had her share it was the other one's turn; using the coarsest terms, and venting a flood of sewerage in unutterably beastly words. Lise, in sheer astonishment at this sudden fit, simply shrugged her shoulders, repeating:
"He's mad! It isn't possible otherwise. He's mad!"
"Tell him he lies!" cried Jean to Françoise.
"Most certainly he lies!" said the girl, composedly.
"Oh, I lie?" resumed Buteau. "Oh! And it isn't true what happened between us at harvest-time? I'll pretty soon bring you under, the two of you, strumpets that you are!"
This rabid audacity paralysed and astounded Jean. Could he now explain what had happened between himself and Françoise? It seemed to him that it would be foul to do so, particularly as she did not give him any assistance. The others—the Delhommes, Fouan, and La Grande—remained reserved. They had not seemed surprised; and they evidently thought that, if the fellow did sleep with the two of them, he could dispose of them as he chose. When a man has his rights, he asserts them.
From that moment, Buteau felt himself victorious in the might of his undisputed possession. He turned towards Jean and cried:
"And you, just you come here again worrying me in my household. To begin with, you'll be off pretty sharp. Eh? you won't? Wait, wait a bit."
He picked up his flail, and whirled the flap round. Jean only just had time to catch up the other one—Françoise's—to defend himself with. There were shrieks, and some attempt to interpose; but the antagonists were so terrible, that everyone recoiled. With the long handles of the flails, blows could be dealt at several yards; so that the yard was soon left clear. Jean and Buteau remained alone in the middle, at a distance from one another, enlarging the circle of their twirls. They no longer spoke but kept their teeth clenched. No sound was heard but the sharp smack of the pieces of wood at each exchange of blows.
Buteau had launched the first one, and Jean, still stooping, would have had his head split open, had he not leapt backwards. By a quick contraction of his muscles, he at once raised his flail, and brought it down in the same style as a thresher crushing grain. But the other was also striking; and the two flaps met, and swung back upon their straps like wounded birds swooping wildly. Thrice there was the same shock. Each time the flaps whirled and whizzed through the air, and they all but fell and split the skulls they threatened. The contest could not be of long duration, for the first blow must be a mortal one.
Delhomme and Fouan, however, were rushing forward, when the women shrieked. Jean had rolled over in the straw, Buteau having treacherously aimed a whip-like blow, which swept along the ground, and, although fortunately deadened, reached his opponent's legs. Jean got up again without letting go of his flail, which he brandished with a fury increased tenfold by pain. The flap made a wide sweep and fell on the right, while the other was expecting it on the left. A fraction of an inch nearer and Buteau's brains would have been dashed out. As it was, his ear was grazed, and the blow coming down obliquely fell full on his arm, which was sharply broken atwain. The bone was heard to snap as if it had been breaking glass. Buteau's hand fell limply down, dropping the flail it was holding.
"The murderer!" yelled Buteau, "he's killed me!"
Jean, with a haggard face and blood-shot eyes, also dropped his weapon. He glanced round at them all for a moment, as if stupefied by the sudden turn that things had taken, and then limped away with a wild gesture of despair.
When he had turned the corner of the house, going towards the plain, he espied La Trouille, who had witnessed the fight over the garden hedge. She was still chuckling over it, having come there to prowl around the christening party, to which neither she nor her father had been invited. What fun it would all be for Hyacinthe—this little family fête and his brother's broken arm! She was wriggling as if she were being tickled, and nearly fell over backwards, so highly was she amused.
"Oh, Corporal, what a whack!" she cried. "The bone gave such a crack! It was fun!"
He made no answer, but slackened his pace with a dejected air. She followed him, whistling to her geese, which she had taken with her, so as to have a pretext for eavesdropping behind the walls. Jean returned mechanically to the threshing-machine, which was still in action, though the day was waning. He thought to himself that it was all over; that he could never go back to the Buteaus, that they would never give him Françoise. What folly it was! Ten minutes had sufficed: an unsought quarrel, and so unlucky a blow, just when everything was in such trim! And now, never, never more! The snorting of the machine amid the twilight was prolonged like a great cry of distress.
Another encounter just then occurred. At the corner of a cross road La Trouille's geese, which she was taking back home, found themselves face to face with old Saucisse's geese on their way down to the village, unaccompanied. The two ganders, in the van, pulled up short, resting on one leg, with their large yellow beaks turned towards each other. All the beaks of each flock turned simultaneously in the same direction as the leaders', and the geese's bodies were inclined to the same side. For an instant perfect immobility was preserved. It was like an armed reconnaissance; two patrols exchanging watch-words. Then one of the ganders, with round, contented eyes, went straight on, while the other bore to the left; and each troop filed off behind its own leader, going about its business with the same uniform waddling gait.